If you ranked the many compelling story lines of this year’s NBA Finals, the play of Spurs shooting guard Danny Green might or might not be No. 1, but it’d definitely be top five. Green’s play in the series has been nothing short of historic — in last night’s Game 5, his six made threes vaulted him past Ray Allen for the all-time record for treys in a Finals series, already beating Ray’s mark of 22 by three, and in one game fewer, no less. (Five more threes in the series and he’d tie Reggie Miller’s all-time record of for most threes made in an entire postseason run, with his 58 in 2000.) Green leads the Spurs with 18 points a game for the series, and is now shooting 57 percent from the field and a mind-boggling 66 percent from three.
Throw in some fine defense, including a couple exceptionally impressive defensive stops in transition during Game 5 on the likes of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, and a handful of rebounds a game, and it’s entirely possible that should the Spurs close out the series in Miami, that Danny Green will be the recipient of 2013′s Bill Russel Trophy for Finals MVP. It won’t be a no-brainer — Tim Duncan will have the all-around, two-way numbers and the sentimental vote on his side, and Tony Parker has the reputation of being the team’s most important player and some very impressive highlight plays to his credit. But given the relatively unprecedented nature of Green’s hot shooting in this series, which has started to extend to Stephen Curry-like range beyond the arc, assuming he can avoid pulling a John Starks in the last game or two, he’s going to have a case, at the very least.
If he did win, the word “unprecedented” would apply to more than just Green’s shooting statistics. In some sports, the postseason is frequently marked by unlikely hot streaks or excellent single-game performances that result in non-star, role-player types taking home playoff top honors. Think David Eckstein or Scott Brosius in baseball, or Dexter Jackson or Larry Brown in football. But in basketball, that doesn’t ever really happen. If you were to do a Sporcle quiz on NBA Finals MVPs, it probably wouldn’t take more than a couple minutes, because the winners are generally the guys you expect. Michael Jordan won that trophy during all six of the Bulls’ title runs, Hakeem won the two with the Rockets, Shaq won the first three for the Lakers in the 21st century and Kobe won the next two. Over the course of a series, the most valuable players generally tend to end up the most valuable players.
This, of course, would not account for Danny Green. Before going into this series, Green was seen as little more than the latest success story of the Great Spurs Machine, a franchise who seemed to systematically pump out wings like Green who could shoot threes, play defense, know his role and generally not do anything to hurt the ballclub, just like Bruce Bowen, Roger Mason Jr., Gary Neal, and so on. He averaged 10.5 points on 45 percent FG and 43 percent 3PT with a 14.1 PER, numbers good enough to make him a worthwhile rotation player, but certainly nothing that would have him in All-Star discussions. Not to mention it was unlikely he was ever even going to get that far, seemingly washing out of the league after one season in Cleveland, a former second-round pick coveted by nobody, before being rescued by San Antonio and set back on the righteous path. Hell, he’s still not even the default “Danny Green” on Wikipedia.
Compare that resume to those from the list of previous NBA Finals MVPs, and the differences are pretty staggering. Of the 19 retired players to have received Finals MVP honors, all but two are currently enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame, and of the nine active players to have won, all but one are a lock for the Hall immediately upon retirement, including Green’s teammates, the three-time winner Duncan and the one-time winner Parker. There are no role players, no one who you’d look at and go “Really? How the hell did that guy end up winning over all those other guys on his team?”
So does that mean there’s no precedent at all for a non-Big Three-er like Danny Green taking home top postseason honors? Well, not quite — there’s nobody who’d be as completely out of left field as Danny Green, but there are a handful of cases of non-superstars taking home the trophy, of guys who certainly wouldn’t have been predicted to be awarded such a distinction — perhaps even moreso at the time than in retrospect. Consider the following cases:
Dennis Johnson (1979 Seattle Supersonics). It’s mildly unfair to call DJ’s name for this, because that Sonics team was famous for not having any true superstars, thus making anyone to win the Finals MVP a sort of unlikely recipient. However, it is worth remembering that despite Johnson going on to a Hall of Fame career with the Sonics, Suns and Celtics, in 1979 he was still a third-year player just named to his first All-Star team, averaging a relatively unremarkable 16/5/4 on 43 percent shooting with a mediocre 15.0 PER for Seattle that year. However, he was undoubtedly All-Star-caliber in the Finals that season, averaging an impressive 22/6/6 (with a couple steals and a couple blocks) for the Sonics as they beat the defending champ Bullets in five games.
Cedric Maxwell (1981 Boston Celtics). Cornbread is probably the one guy whose name would stand out as not belonging on that prestigious list of Finals MVPs, and the guy whose win is the most surprising given the Hall of Fame-caliber talent surrounding him on the ’81 Celtics (Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, Robert Parrish, even an aging Tiny Archibald). However, it was a team whose truest stars had yet to peak — Bird was just in his second season at the time, and McHale was still a rookie — and Maxwell played just well enough in the Finals against the Rockets (about 18 points and 10 rebounds, including a 28/10 in a pivotal Game 5 blowout) to edge out Bird, whose shooting slumped early in the series. Complex recently ranked him as the third-worst Finals MVP in history, which sounds about right. He currently stands as the only Finals MVP to never be named to an All-Star team.
Joe Dumars (1989 Detroit Pistons). Dumars went on to enjoy a long and prestigious Hall of Fame career, but in 1989, he was still basically on the come up. His fourth season of the league was just his first in which he was named an All-Star, averaging about 17 points a game with six assists on 51 percent shooting, very good numbers for an excellent team, but certainly nothing eye-popping. Before that year, he had never averaged 15 points or five assists a game, and never shot above 50 percent from the floor. But Dumars was absolutely electric from the floor in Detroit’s four-game drubbing of the Lakers in the ’89 Finals, averaging 27 points and six assists on 58 percent shooting, numbers he would of course never even approach during his regular season career.
Chauncey Billups (2004 Detroit Pistons). Before he nailed down his Mr. Big Shot reputation, Chauncey Billups was closer to a draft bust than a future Hall of Famer, having already played for a staggering five teams in his seven-year NBA career, only really settling in with Detroit after landing there in ’02. He had established himself as a starter by the time of the Pistons’ ’04 title run, but still shot under 40 percent from the field that season, and would not be named to his first All-Star Game until two years later. His excellent-for-a-low-scoring-series offensive performance in the Pistons-Lakers Finals upset (21 points, five assists, 50 percent FG) made him an easy selection for Finals MVP, however, and given the big-game reputation he would build in postseasons to come, today his presence on the list hardly seems conspicuous at all.
And really, that last point with Chauncey is the thing to remember when considering the head-shaking possibility that Danny Green could actually be the Finals MVP of a series that also includes LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker — the final story on Green is still super-unwritten. This hot streak of his seems crazy now, but while he’s unlikely to ever repeat 66 percent three-point shooting for a whole season, it’s entirely possible that the 25-year-old Green could spend the next five to 10 years as one of the league’s most feared three-point threats, and in so grow into the role of All-Star and franchise-type talent that usually marks a Finals MVP. In 15 years, Danny Green’s presence on the list might seem totally innocuous.
That said, there’s certainly never been an NBA Finals MVP who went into that year’s playoffs with a résumé less prestigious than Green’s, should he win. In fact, I’d bet even coach Gregg Popovich could have gotten better odds as the trophy winner than Danny. It’s one of the factors that makes his absolutely incredible performance this series so much fun to watch — not only are we watching history in the making, but it’s weird, unique, and totally unpredictable history, seemingly becoming more improbable with every drained 24-to-30-footer. And if the Spurs do win one more game, even Tim and Tony have to be rooting for him to take home the trophy.